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Why are our schools full of deadly asbestos?

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July 14, 2008

Why are our schools full of deadly asbestos?

Don't tell anyone, but we have a problem. Most of the 24,000 schools in this country have significant amounts of asbestos.

The possible effects on children of ingesting asbestos fibres or dust into their immature lungs are only fully revealed many years later when they start falling prey to a cancer with a poor survival rate and a difficult name: mesothelioma.

This is a highly aggressive cancer of the lung lining caused by exposure to asbestos.

Mesothelioma is not the same as cancer of the lung; this can also be caused by asbestos, but then it is usually an occupational disease of people working in heavy industry or the building trade.

Most mesothelioma sufferers have no recollection of being exposed to asbestos. But their numbers are growing - over the next ten years, up to 90,000 people could die from the cancer, according to one expert.

Its rising incidence is being linked to the proliferation of asbestos in office, school and domestic building programmes in the late Sixties.

The gestation period of mesothelioma is typically 30 to 40 years.

In cases where a sufferer is aged 30 to 50, the most likely time of exposure is during their school years.

I am 56 and was diagnosed with mesothelioma three years ago. My professional career in the music business has not involved any obvious contact with asbestos.

There is a woeful lack of research funding and, therefore, the treatment is still primitive. Survival rates after diagnosis are poor - usually six to 18-months.

So it's certainly not a disease to which you'd want to expose your children.

Given the connection between this ghastly disease and asbestos, what parent wouldn't want to know if their child's school contained the deadly substance?

Well, don't expect your head teacher or board of governors to know, because few fully realise their school's vulnerability.

Have discovered, since 1967 at least, successive governments and official bodies have simply ignored the problem.

The common perception is that asbestos usage tailed off after the Sixties.

In fact, as the insurers Norwich Union point out: 'The peak year of asbestos imports into the UK was 1973.'

They estimate that 'six million metric tonnes of asbestos have been imported into the UK, much of it is still in place in homes, schools, hospitals and workplaces'.

Nearly half the schools still in service were built in the post-war years, using asbestos as a basic building material - for insulation, walls and ceilings or for outbuildings.

Older schools also have significant amounts of asbestos due to rebuilding, modernising, pipe-lagging and insulation work.

What is so astounding about this is that we've known about the risks of asbestos for decades - and our children have still been knowingly exposed.

As early as 1931, the Government recognised asbestos as a potentially dangerous material, imposing basic safety regulations.

In 1955, the leading British epidemiologist Dr Richard Doll published evidence linking asbestos with lung cancer.

A Factories Inspectorate report of 1965 claimed: 'Mesothelioma has been shown to be associated in some cases with exposure to asbestos dating back 20 years or more previously and sometimes of astonishingly slight degree.'

Two years later, the head of the Medical Inspectorate of Factories, Dr T. Lloyd Davies, wrote to the Department of Education that 'no one can deny there is an association between mesothelioma and asbestos.

No one knows the "dose" required to produce mesothelioma in later years, but it might be small. The more I see of asbestos, the more I dislike it.'

Evidence linking asbestos and mesothelioma continued to emerge, but it wasn't until 1976 that the Department of Education (as it then was) at last issued a guideline.

After noting that in certain conditions 'asbestos is friable' (i.e. has the ability to fray), it advised: 'It must be remembered that the health hazard arises only from the inhalation of asbestos fibres and therefore the sealing of asbestos products. . . is equally effective and in some cases more appropriate... than replacement or removal.'

Ten years later, in 1986 - 20 years after Dr Lloyd Davies's warning - the Department of Education issued a further guideline.

Although there have been two updates, it remains the Government's defining statement on asbestos in our schools.

'If the asbestos material is sound and undamaged, it may be left in place and a management system should be introduced to keep its condition under review.'

In the same year, laws were passed in the U.S. encouraging schools to seek out asbestos and funds were provided to remove it.

What the official statement ignores is that any number of things can make asbestos fray - vermin, water leaks, ageing, disturbing the site through maintenance or repair, making holes in it and even simply hitting or indenting it - allowing potentially lethal fibres into the air.

Just as shocking is that the Government doesn't know how much asbestos is our schools.

Michael Lees's wife, a primary school teacher, died from mesothelioma in 2000.

'I was amazed to discover there is no centrally collated audit of the full extent and condition of asbestos in the country's schools,' he says.

'Consequently, many schools are unaware of the extent and condition of their asbestos.'

Contrast this with what happens elsewhere. In the Republic of Ireland, all schools were surveyed for asbestos in 2000 and the government there is committed to complete eradication.

Northern Ireland surveyed its schools in 2004 and is now removing asbestos.
Until asbestos removal is made mandatory here, local authorities will not take up the gauntlet.

The guiding principle is clearly cost: a comprehensive scheme of asbestos removal from all our schools would be phenomenal expensive and quite possibly beyond any government.

One suggestion is that the asbestos industry makes a contribution on the basis that the polluter pays, over a long time, for removal.

As of 1993 all traces of asbestos have been sought out and removed from the Palace of Westminster. Good to know our politicians are safe, isn't it?

In 1994, the Department of the Environment found asbestos in its headquarters. Though the building was due for demolition just two years later, the asbestos was removed at a cost of £1million.

In the same year, the Under Secretary of State for schools, Eric Forth, wrote to the National Union of Teachers declaring: 'I am afraid I cannot agree with the NUT's suggestion that local authorities should be required to carry out an audit of asbestos in school buildings.'

So, who will protect our children?

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